How to do Non-Destructive Editing in Photoshop

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Picture this, you are about halfway through editing a beautiful urban landscape in Photoshop. You’ve already put hours into the image when suddenly you notice that a particular area of the image doesn’t add up. A wall you were working on has accidentally been Clone Stamped to look as if it were hanging at an unnatural angle. It just looks wrong. After repeatedly hitting the undo button you discover that Photoshop can only remember so much, and you are stuck with this disastrous looking edit. All you can do now is waste more precious time trying to fix the problem or close the program and start from square one. If only there was some other way – enter non-destructive editing in Photoshop.

Non-Destructive Editing in Photoshop

Now you see me…now you don’t! Editing with a non-destructive workflow means that you can edit your photos without leaving a trace on the original file.

What is non-destructive editing?

Fortunately, there is a better way! Non-destructive editing (sometimes called NDE for short) is a method of editing in Photoshop that allows you to make changes to an image without overwriting the original image data. This means that you will always be able to backtrack on adjustments made to an image as needed, retaining flexibility and keeping the resolution of the original image intact.

You may have already encountered non-destructive editing while following online tutorials that instruct you to use a particular adjustment layer to make modifications rather than editing the actual image.

Non-destructive editing is not one single technique. You can perform it in numerous ways in Photoshop depending on the desired outcome of an image. For this article, we will have a look at some of the most basic methods used by photographers for doing non-destructive editing .

Duplicating the background layer

No matter what image you have opened in Photoshop, the first step is always to duplicate the background layer. If you do happen to make an adjustment directly onto the image the background layer will remain untouched. Then you can start afresh with all your adjustment layers intact.

To do this, open an image in Photoshop. Move the curser to the thumbnail image in the Layers panel and right click on the shaded area that says Background. Now select the Duplicate Layer option and select OK at the screen prompt. A new layer will appear above the Background layer in the layers panel titled Background Copy.

non-destructive editing duplicate layer

nondestructive editing Photoshop

non-destructive editing

Working with adjustment layers

Simply put, adjustment layers apply colour and tonal adjustments to an image without permanently changing any pixel values. To activate the adjustment layers panel click Window on the top menu bar and select Adjustments. It will bring up a panel with lots of adjustment options such as levels, hue/saturation, brightness/contrast, gradient overlays and black/white.  This is the go-to panel for digital editing and in most cases, it will provide all the editing tools you will need.

Non-Destructive Editing in Photoshop

Select one of the adjustment layers by clicking on an icon. The name of the icon will appear if you rest your mouse on it for a moment. In this example, I have chosen Curves to adjust the contrast in my photograph. Clicking that icon will cause the Curves panel to pop up with the available settings within that adjustment.

non-destructive editing curves

Non-Destructive Editing in Photoshop

Notice that there is now a new layer in the layers panel which is sitting above the one called Background. This means that any layers below the Curves layer will be affected by this adjustment. To limit the effect of an adjustment to a single layer only, right click on the adjustment layer and select Create Clipping Mask. A small arrow pointing down indicates that the adjustment layer will only affect the one that is sitting directly underneath it.

Non-Destructive Editing in Photoshop

Using Smart Filters

Adding a filter to an image can be done non-destructively and will allow you to undo the effects of it later if you change your mind. Click on the layer you would like to apply a filter to and click on the Filter drop-down menu located on the top main toolbar. Select Convert for Smart Filters and a pop-up will appear saying that you must turn the selected layer into a Smart Object. Hit OK and a tiny document shaped icon will appear in the bottom left-hand corner of the selected layer thumbnail image.

non-destructive editing convert smart filters

non-destructive editing smart object

After you select a filter from the Filter Gallery (via Filter > Filter Gallery) and apply it to the image, you will see two new items beneath the selected layer. Clicking on the eye icon next to the Filter Gallery layer will toggle the filter on and off, and double clicking near the Filter Gallery text will open the Filter Gallery adjustments. Right clicking on the Filter Gallery Layer will bring up a menu. If you want to remove a filter altogether, select delete and the filter mask will disappear without degrading your image.

non-destructive editing

Use Layer Masks instead of the Eraser Tool

Masking is one of the more common tools in the Photoshop master’s kit. Using a layer mask allows you to you hide or mmask off parts of an image rather than using the eraser tool to permanently remove parts of an image. To apply a layer mask, open an image, select the layer you want to edit and click on the small icon at the bottom of the layers panel.

non-destructive editing mask

Non-Destructive Editing in Photoshop

A close-up of the Layer Mask button.

A mask will appear next to the layer you have selected, with a small chain icon between the thumbnail and the mask. When you have the image icon selected any effects applied to the image will occur as normal. However, if you select the mask, you will find that painting onto it (with black) will hide parts of that layer.

Close up of the selected mask layer - note the white lines around the corners of the layer.

Close-up of the selected layer mask – note the white lines around the corners indicating which part is active.

Non-Destructive Editing in Photoshop

With the background layer turned off (not visible) you can see that part of this layer is missing, or hidden by the layer mask where it is black. Black conceals or hides, white reveals.

Now, if any hidden portion of the image is painted over in white on the layer, it will be visible again. If you then delete the mask all the hidden areas will reappear.

Dodging and burning non-destructively

The Dodge and Burn tools are used to lighten and darken areas of an image, but applying these effects directly to an image is destructive, preventing you from being able to edit the changes later.

To dodge and burn non-destructively, start by opening up your photo. Duplicate the background layer, then select Layer > New > Layer from the top menu bar. A dialogue box will pop-up, make sure your settings are the same as those shown below and hit OK. A new layer will be created.

Non-Destructive Editing in Photoshop

Create a new layer

Use the settings you see below. That will fill the layer with gray and change the blend mode to make it effective for dodging and burning.

non-destructive editing

Use these settings for your dodge and burn layer.

You can give this layer a nickname to help you remember what it is doing. You can always do it later if you forget, by double-clicking on the layer name. I usually call this layer “dodge/burn”.

Now simply select either the Dodge or Burn tool and apply any adjustments to this new layer. Though you are now editing one layer above the actual image, you have adjusted the blend mode so that the opacity of the grey Dodge/Burn layer is completely transparent, and any changes you make to this layer now appear to only adjust the image, without impacting the quality of the original pixels.

non-destructive editing dodge burn layer

Result of the dodge and burn layer

Result of the dodge and burn layer

Using the Clone Stamp non-destructively

The Clone Stamp is another great tool used to remove bits and pieces you may not want in an image. Normally it works by moving pixels in the original image around but, you guessed it, that is a very destructive technique!

To use the Clone Stamp Tool non-destructively simply create a new layer as before. Next, select the Clone Stamp Tool and in the Sample drop-down menu select the Current & Below option. Now the Clone Stamp Tool will sample everything in the image but only apply any changes to the top most layer.

clone tool

non-destructive editing

The clone layer looks like this.

clone tool non-destructive

The result of the clone layer being applied looks like this.

Conclusion

There are plenty of other methods to edit non-destructively. But as the basics show, non-destructive editing is mostly about using new layers that are placed above the original image rather than adjusting the original image itself. It may seem clunky at first, but it will soon become an automatic part of your workflow. The next time you find yourself with an awkward edit you’ll be glad you can simply turn a layer off rather than starting all over again.

How do you use edit non-destructively in Photoshop?

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Megan Kennedy

is a photographer and writer based in Canberra, Australia. A lifelong fascination with flight has inspired her photographic practice in documenting the intricate form of aircraft. Megan is also interested in travel photography and documenting human interaction with the modern landscape, through both intentional and incidental intervention. She is well versed in both digital and film practice. Both her writing and photography has been featured in numerous publications.

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  • Thanks Megan Kennedy for the awesome photo editing article. I think, sometimes photographers need to edit her image in non-destructive workflow. You clearly designed you tutorial and include basic steps that will help newbies a lot.

  • Megan Kennedy

    Glad you liked it Jamila

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  • KC

    This is just for “it just might happen” purposes, and I’ve run into it. A large image file can explode in size as the layers accumulate, to the point where reopening the file can get problematic. This is purely conditional, and you may never run into it, but if you get a bit “layer happy” – it can.

    I had a client that would layer every little correction. Hundreds of layers. Once in a while the file would be saved, in all it’s massive glory. At some point the file just wouldn’t open. Well, it would – eventually. I get a panic call (I’ve worked hours on this!) and the computer would land on my desk. I’d transfer it to the 4K video editing workstation, a powerful, computer setup. Photoshop would “stall” for a while and we’d just wait it out. Eventually, the image would trickle across the screen. Once things stabilized I could flatten the file down and save it as a new, smaller file. What fun.

    Photoshop is an amazing and powerful program. But a big, complex, composite file on a single drive computer can make for some interesting moments.

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